jump to navigation

A most confusing name. May 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: ,

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about one of our favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris. (No one can touch the incomparable Dr. Franklin, of course, but Gouverneur Morris is definitely up there with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in our top four.) I just saw with interest that someone had come onto our blog looking for help in pronouncing Gouverneur Morris’s name. Easy, right? It’s GOO-ver-NUR. Wrong! Uh, “governor”? Wrong. Appearances and common sense to the contrary, I have it on good authority that Morris’s contemporaries pronounced his name “gover-NEER.” Sheesh.  

And who’d saddle an infant with a name like “Gouverneur,” anyway?!! (Our friend Ben, whose progenitor in the Colonies was Marmaduke Semmes, points out that perhaps we shouldn’t throw stones here.) More than one of us grew up assuming that Morris was a governor and Gouverneur was his title, with some leeway for the elastic spelling of the time. But we were as wrong about that as about his name’s pronunciation.

Actually, the explanation is quite simple: Morris was named to honor his mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Gouverneur. This practice is still common in the South, where many of us, male and female, bear our mother’s family name as a middle name, and many go by it as their given name. Thus, Mary Jamison Roberts becomes Jamison, or just Jamie; Charles Colston Burrell is called Colston or Cole.

But still, “Gouverneur” is quite a mouthful. Wonder if he had any nicknames?

In a group of extraordinary people, in an extraordinary time, Gouverneur Morris led a life that was perhaps more amazing than any. Someday, I promise, I’ll tell you his larger-than-life story. I’d be willing to bet that he’ll become one of your favorite Founders, too!    



1. Jane Marie - May 28, 2008

Well, now that was interesting. I learned all kinds of things.

Thank you, Jane Marie! I wish I had time to go into Gouverneur Morris’s story. It’s better than any novel ever written!

2. Kate theManicGardener - May 28, 2008

I assumed it was a weird spelling of Governor, the title. But no. I would like to know why he’s your favorite–after Franklin, of course. Maybe next post?

I’d always assumed that, too, Kate, until I began studying Colonial and Federal history. The more I read, the more I think that the Founders truly were an exceptional group. Practically to a man (the roguish Tom Paine and the crusty, pragmatic John Adams were exceptions), they *literally* attempted to live up to the ideals of the Classical philosophers. The idea of “bettering one’s self” today has come to have solely financial, or possibly social-climbing, connotations, but for them, it was all about living in such a manner as to become better men. Some, of course, succeeded better than others! But it was this universal striving that set our Founders apart. I for one think we were lucky to have them! And yes, I’ll definitely tell Gouverneur Morris’s story and let everyone decide for themselves where he should rank in the pantheon. As soon as I’m off this *&%$#@!! deadline!

3. deb - May 28, 2008

That tradition is alive and well down here. Our oldest boy’s middle name is Mansfield the maiden name of his maternal great grandmother.


Good for you! Not only does this bring genealogy to life, it gives people much more interesting names! My brother and sister both got family names for their middle names; I’m the only one who was stuck with two first names. Sigh.

4. walk2write - May 28, 2008

I had a similar discussion with a neighbor the other day. She was wondering how our grandson Micah was given his name (it has biblical origins as well as being a version of his paternal grandfather’s name). We both noted the callous tendency of some parents to give their children ridiculous names, knowing full well that the kids will undoubtedly be mercilessly teased as they grow up and attend school. For instance, we both knew families with the surname Hogg. She said the family she knew named their daughters Ima and Ura. No kidding!

Oh, dear. I think those are grounds for justifiable homicide, don’t you?!

5. Cinj - May 29, 2008

Poor guy. I can see where some people would be thrown off with a name like that. I think it’s neat to use family names and all, but with all of the names in the whole family….

When I was youger I always joked about naming my kids president or some other title, but I could never do that.

When I did name my children, I went through every name I thought of and tried to brainstorm any way the child could be teased. I picked the names with the least number of possible ways to tease the kids. Maybe that involved too much work, but I think my children are secretly thankful for my anal qualities when it comes to decisions like those.

I’m sure they are, Cinj!

6. Gail Everett - November 20, 2008

Thanks. I just read Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, about the writing of the Constitution. Great book. I’ve been recommending it to people who ask, “Who wrote the Constitution?” Well, actually it was a committee, but Governeur Morris put in in final form before it was ratified. Now I know how to pronounce his name.

Thank you, Gail! I haven’t read Miracle at Philadelphia yet but will find a copy ASAP. It certainly was a miracle!

7. Madison Weaver - January 23, 2009

what is his his nickname?

8. Mary Barton - April 13, 2010

You must read Unwise Passions, by Alan Pell Crawford, about the life of Nancy Randolph, the wife of Morris. It’s a great read and well documented. Morris is portrayed as a kind and generous man (despite his earlier rakish behavior). It would make a fantastic movie, with suitable casting and direction. Talk about truth being greater than fiction!

Thanks for clearing up the pronunciation of Gouverneur. It’s been driving me crazy for years!

My pleasure, Mary! And thank YOU for the recommendation! I’ll have to find a copy at the EOM. I believe that Morris really WAS a kind and generous man, who was blessed with a bouyant disposition that enabled him to survive (literally) crippling blows that would have crushed and embittered a lesser man.

9. David - October 2, 2011

“I have it on good authority that Morris’s contemporaries pronounced his name ‘gover-NEER.'”

What is your authority, or in other words, your source? And was his mother’s maiden name pronounced the same way?


Hi David! My source is Richard Brookhiser’s “Gentleman Revolutionary” (Free Press, 2003), a biography of Morris. He says: “Mr.Morris had a French first name (his mother’s maiden name), which Americans insisted on pronouncing ‘Gov-er-NEER’…” And yes, his mother’s name would have been pronounced the same way by those same Americans. If you’re interested in Morris, this is a good book to start with; I also recommend William Howard Adams’s “Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life” (Yale University Press, 2003). There’s also an extensive three-volume bio, “Gouverneur Morris,” written by Jared Sparks in 1832, and an 1889 bio, also “Gouverneur Morris,” by Teddy Roosevelt of all people. I wish you many happy hours of reading!

10. margie - August 13, 2012

I thank you so much. I was wondering how to pronounce Gouverneur K Warren’s name and was wondering how he got that, knowing that his parents named most of their children after role models…only they were of local heros. So now when I tell people of my cousin I can at least pronounce his name correctly instead of stumbling over it!

Hi Margie! So glad one of your relatives was named after such a great Founder. Go Gouverneur go!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: